The burden of Durban’s porters may get heavier

Porters in Durban work hard and for very little pay, without any support. Now, the city is set on moving them to a part of town where their earning potential will be diminished.

It is 9am on a grey and misty day in Durban and Wellington Hlongwa stretches his weary legs across his well-worn barrow. He has been up since 4am moving tons of fresh produce around the Early Morning Market in Warwick Junction. 

He is grateful for the reprieve. His work as a porter is backbreaking. Hlongwa is looking forward to his breakfast.

He eases his body up against the wall of a market shed beside his trusty barrow and waits for his bowl of hot mealie-meal porridge. When a friend delivers it, she serves him with four heaped spoons of sugar and a squirt of lemon juice. 

It will fuel Hlongwa for the better part of the day. He has already moved close to two tons of tomato boxes and it has been a good day. He and his mates savour the morning break. Some share a joint or a carton of amahewu. Others like Hlongwa rest alone. While he eats his breakfast his other hand runs lovingly over the wood and metal contraption he bought for the princely sum of R300 in 1983. 

30 October 2020: Wellington Hlongwa sits atop his trolley and has breakfast after his morning shift.

In the intervening 37 years the metal has worn shiny. The wood has been repaired countless times and smoothed by his hands. The market trolley is an extension of Hlongwa and has been his livelihood since he started at the age of 18.

Hlongwa is one of about 1 000 porters in Durban’s inner city, men historically known by the pejorative term “barrow boys”, although many are in their late 60s. 

They are remarkably strong and haul thousands of tons of fresh produce, barrels of water, clothing and hardware around the city every day. Their non-motorised transport is integral to the trade in the eThekwini inner city, and yet the city has little regard for them.

When Hlongwa started he was but a teenager, sprightly but not as tough or as wise as he is today. Back then he worked furiously, but more awkwardly. Now he has rhythm and pace. He knows how to preserve energy, when to leverage his weight, to lean into the load and to navigate tight corners and keep momentum. 

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There’s an art to it. A good porter knows how to bend without putting his back out. He knows how to swing and stack boxes efficiently and how to quickly tie the load with frayed, but serviceable ropes. The faster you work, the more you earn.

Hlongwa finishes his porridge with a sigh.

There are more tomato boxes to offload, two trucks stacked high. But he’s well-rested. He is healthy and he counts himself lucky. At the market he has a coveted gig and his job is considerably easier than most porters who operate on the street outside. They run the gauntlet darting between pedestrians and traffic, pulling loads of up to 300kgs. 

They work from about 4am to 9pm, whizzing up and down pavements and between taxis. They transport goods for wholesalers, traders and shoppers. It is a perilous job and collisions and injury are common. 

A city blind to porters’ troubles 

Lulama Thusi, a grizzled 66-year-old walks with a limp, but, while he is slow, he’s still powerful. He is among 234 porters who operate out of an abandoned building in Johannes Nkosi Street. It is a central site where they store clients’ goods, eat, sleep and repair their barrows. The city is determined to demolish the building in spite of their protests.

Storage areas like this are dotted around the city, under bridges, in culverts and parkades. They form an integral distribution network for informal traders.

Patrick Ndlovu is a former official who left the eThekwini municipality and co-founded Asiye eTafuleni (AeT), a non-governmental agency that works with informal traders and often butts heads with the city advocating for a better deal for porters and others. In isiZulu, Asiye eTafuleni means let’s go to the table or let’s bring it to the table for discussion.

30 October 2020: Patrick Ndlovu is one of the founders of Asiye eTafuleni, an organisation that talks to the city of eThekwini to win better conditions for porters and informal traders.

Ndlovu has worked with informal traders for over 30 years and has deep insights into their conditions. He knows the porters well and says the city is largely blind to their toils – as witnessed by the decision to move Thusi and the others to a spot in Greyville that, apart from being inadequate, will add about 2km to their daily grind. Most porters make many 4km round trips between Warwick Junction and The Workshop.  

Understanding the porters’ business requires an intimate knowledge of the gargantuan operation that Warwick is. About 500 000 people pass through the transport nexus daily. 

The hub of taxi, bus, rail, cars, pedestrians and traders is a riot of colour and sound. From early morning to late at night this gateway to the city is alive with the bustle of the market. Anything a shopper needs is available from the informal traders. They peddle bright pinafores, shoes, cooked bovine heads and muthi. There are hardware smouses, rag merchants and bead sellers. You can as easily procure spears and shields as Nike trainers and headache tablets. You can get toiletry items, impepho (incense) to communicate with the ancestors and clay balls used for healing.

Trading in Warwick dates back to at least the turn of the last century and since then porters have been hard at work servicing the area that now includes upwards of 6 000 traders, doing an estimated turnover of R1 billion a year. 

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The bulk of porters’ earnings (anything from R200 a month to R4 000) are derived from transporting and storing goods for informal traders. Ndlovu says the different sections of the market are serviced by different groups, often with deep rural links. Their businesses are often passed from generation to generation.

Most are from the Eastern Cape and abide by strict codes of conduct.

For example, he says, if a porter stops sending money home, word will reach his peers and he will be chided. If he keeps up his errant ways, his colleagues will take up a collection for his fare home and bundle him on to a taxi and send him home where he will do penance before being allowed back. Ndlovu is in awe of the porters. He points across a busy Warwick intersection at a young man heaving a loaded barrow. 

“That’s 150kgs at least. Most guys can carry up to 300kgs. Men driving past in their cars are probably proud of what they push at the gym, but they wouldn’t last a day doing this work.”

The porter is a blur of gleaming muscle, sweat and concentration. He lurches left and right, deftly avoiding flustered shoppers, pedestrians and vehicles.

30 October 2020: Million Nkomo prepares and cleans his “spot” every morning. He and herbalists share this area, which is close to the traditional medicines market at Warwick Junction at Berea station.

‘Porters are treated badly’ 

It is just after midday and the heat is oppressive. The wiry youngster has been darting around since before sun up. He has boots on, but many porters go barefoot, Ndlovu says, to get better traction. 

“Porters are treated badly, but the city wouldn’t work without them. Sometimes a trader will see his goods for the first time when he unpacks at his stall. The porter has fetched them from the wholesaler and takes full responsibility for overnight storage and delivery.”

Ndlovu says porters mostly work months on the trot without a break. If they stopped for a day their muscle ache would be so severe it would be overwhelming. So they save the rest time for when they have earned enough money to go back home.

30 October 2020: One of the many work-worn trolleys used by porters.

Ndlovu said AeT unsuccessfully resisted plans by the eThekwini municipality to move the porter storage area in Johannes Nkosi Street to Greyville.

The move was indicative of the city’s attitude to informal traders who are often harassed by police and have their goods confiscated and impounded. The derelict building used by the  porters in Johannes Nkosi is far from ideal, but it is central and the men there have improvised the facility.

Ndlovu said the city seemed to have embraced concepts put forward by AeT to improve the lot of porters, like the idea of storage facilities at ground level, but it had yet to see evidence of this being implemented.

Ndlovu said some officials had no concept of the porters’ reality. They needed clean, secure and accessible storage with sleeping and ablution facilities close to their loaded barrows. They sleep in shifts on wooden pallets beneath tarpaulins. They eat there, repair their barrows there and find safety in numbers against criminals.

30 October 2020: Sinovuyo Mthalane pulls a trolley at Bertha Mkhize Street, headed to the Durban CBD.

“The city should have a dedicated lane in Warwick for the porters. If they scratch a taxi they can be sjambokked or made to pay a fine, or both. We have lanes for cyclists in the city, why not porters? Most people underestimate these guys. They move abnormal loads, have to stay fit and work in the harshest environment and yet they are treated so badly.”

Samkelo Maxhakana came to Durban in 2015 and became a porter to feed his family in Lusikisiki in the Eastern Cape. When he doesn’t have work he hires out his barrow at R50 a week. It is better than nothing, Maxhakana says. His barrow is his livelihood and he is worried it could be vandalised at the proposed alternate city facility in Greyville.

30 October 2020: A porter waits to offload cases full of tomatoes.

“It will be hard for us if we move,” said Maxhakana. “People will have to pay more because the distance is increased. For years we have been in this building. We came here and sorted ourselves out. Now the municipality wants to demolish the building. If they do, I think that’s the end of us.” 

Porter Mongezi Msonywa said he was heartbroken at the prospect of being moved. “At the moment we are still in the dark. I saw the [court] papers. I have lost hope. The place they have found for us is not good. It is very far away and we will lose customers.”

EThekwini Municipality spokesperson Msawakhe Mayisela did not want to comment on the relocation because the matter was in court. He said the city had been given heritage permission to demolish the current site to make way for a Human Settlement development. 

Mayisela maintained that traders had agreed to move to the Greyville site. As for porters being fined by Metro police, he said these were issued to those operating in areas “not designated for such activity”.

30 October 2020: A porter takes a nap in one of the storage areas.
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